‘ONCE your plane takes off again, you’re stuck here until Monday,’ says Susanna, the guide who meets me on Friday morning. ‘There are no more flights in or out.’
Welcome to one of the most remote spots on Earth, where the January temperature averages a bracing -27ºC (-16ºF). Kangerlussuaq in Greenland is the former US Air Force base of Sondrestrom and the attractions for those who served here may be guessed at from a sign in the former HQ, now a museum: ‘Sondrestrom is a great place to be. By order of the base commander.’
Built as a staging post for Allied aircraft on their way to Britain from the US during World War II, the airport is kept open 24 hours a day to serve as an emergency landing strip for transatlantic flights. The next time you’re on your way to New York, raise your glass to the crews working around the clock in often foul weather to keep the 3km-long runway free of ice in case you need it.
Most of the town’s population of 500 work at the airport and the clusters of brightly painted buildings sprawl close to the runway’s boundary fence. There are few roads, the most interesting being one built by Volkswagen for testing cars that leads to the edge of the Greenland ice cap.
This extraordinary cliff of blue ice is more than 3,000m high at its thickest point and contains enough water to raise ocean levels by six metres if it melted (which, of course, it shows every sign of doing). When you look at it, you are seeing the remnants of the sheet that covered Earth during the Ice Age.
I’ve stayed in a few places – Angola, Lebanon, even Belfast – where, if I stepped outside my hotel door and did the wrong thing, I might be killed. In Kangerlussuaq, I knew if I did the wrong thing, I was sure to be killed. Wander off ill-prepared into winter’s sub-zero temperatures and you survive for a very short time. But I am completely free to do it.
And that seems to be the appeal of Greenland. ‘I love the freedom,’ says Rene, whose energetic and enthusiastic dog sled team took me for a spin across the frozen fjord. He’s from Denmark but has spent 17 years here and handles his dogs like a native. That means casually.
‘If you get thrown off, just hang on and the dogs will run until they’re tired; maybe 10km or so,’ he advises. ‘Or say ‘‘Unigiit!’’ and they might stop for you. Then turn them around and they’ll take you home. Or you can try braking; you just throw this rope under the runners. But be careful not to fall off yourself. It might take a long time to find you.’
With the hunting season under way, Rene’s dogs were on a meat diet and the downside of dog sledding – apart from falling off and dying cold and alone, far from home – was soon apparent. Fortunately, Greenland dogs run in a fan shape, rather than the two-by-two formation necessary for forested areas such as Sweden or Alaska. That means they can take turns to drop back and do their business off to one side, rather than kicking it back in your face. However, there is no escaping the smell.
Going the other way, we passed a lone hunter and his dog sled team heading off to the interior to hunt for musk ox or reindeer. As long as you have shells for your rifle, you can feed yourself and your dogs and keep going into the vast parts of the map that are still marked ‘unexplored’.
Have an accident, though, and you may never be heard of again or even searched for. That either scares or excites you, and, if you’re sensible, a bit of both.
Just as I was having some romantic ideas about it, the relative silence of padded paws and sledge skimming across snow was broken by a familiar sound. ‘Sorry,’ says Rene, pulling out a mobile phone. ‘It’s my dentist. In Sweden.’
As the world closes in, Greenland is still a place for you to escape it all. If only until you need your next dental appointment.
I travelled to Greenland with Explore! www.explore.co.uk